My dad first voiced that he thought I should come home to Canada from my study abroad in Denmark in the first week of March. It was before the novel coronavirus had caused most European governments to sound their alarms and before any major lockdowns outside of Italy had ensued. Initially, I had dismissed the idea. Denmark had experienced merely a few cases, and I naively thought the spread was containable. It seemed unnecessary to upend the life I had just established in Aarhus, Denmark, where I was supposed to stay until June. But meanwhile, the virus was quietly spreading to all corners of the globe. Two weeks later, cases were surging worldwide. Europe had become an epicentre of the outbreak. The United States wouldn’t be far behind.
By March 16, in an address to the nation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was urging all citizens and residents who were abroad to come home. My university then began imploring all students to return home immediately.
Within the span of 12 hours, I had booked two flights, packed up my entire living space and boarded the bus from Aarhus to Copenhagen. The next day I made the journey from Copenhagen to Vancouver. I didn’t necessarily want to leave, nor did I want to travel when public health officials have been clear in their directives: stay home as much as possible to curb the spread and avoid to all non-essential travel. But this wasn’t me foolishly continuing my travel plans despite severe warnings. I was following my home country’s directions. And amidst this abrupt turn of events, I had subsequently developed a new profound desire to be home.
I’d never really experienced homesickness, but watching the global death toll multiply and seeing initial school closures become full-blown lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the thought of being at home had never felt more appealing.
In a CNN article, clinical psychologist Josh Klapow suggests that homesickness often stems from our instinctive need for love, protection and security—feelings we generally associate with home. I now wanted the security that being with my family would bring. Otherwise, I’d be all alone in a strange dormitory in another continent, waiting out a pandemic. Safely hunkered down inside my house, things would at least feign some sense of normalcy.
This was even more acutely felt as a student who was already adjusting to a new environment and coping with being away from my usual support network. According to a study conducted by International SOS, an international medical assistance and security assistance company, students who were studying abroad were more likely to experience psychological difficulties and need repatriation on account of a mental health condition than other groups abroad. I can’t help but think that in this case—where my study abroad had become plagued by a literal plague—any stress I already felt as I navigated my new surroundings was naturally intensified.
I knew others who also packed their bags to head home indefinitely. Miri Muñoz, a student from Madrid, left two weeks before she was supposed to finish an internship she was completing at a school in Aarhus. Cases were rapidly increasing in Spain, and as more airlines began drastically reducing their operations, she feared being stranded in Denmark. “I would be alone in a foreign country without my family, and I’d be scared of getting infected,” Muñoz said.
She too felt comforted being at home. “If you are far away from family and friends, everything gets magnified,” she said. “Being at home has definitively made me feel relieved and calm.”
The virus has upended our lives entirely. We’re grieving, we’re anxious, and it doesn’t help that normal routines that keep many of us sane have come to a near-halt. Health experts advise this may last for weeks, if not months. Amidst this uncertainty and social precariousness, being at home and close to family at least provides some sense of comfort and sanity.
While I’m usually quick to call myself “very independent”, this crisis taught me otherwise. At this point, nothing seems more comforting than my old childhood bedroom. And while we don’t know how long we’ll be hunkered down for, riding out the next month or so at home with family may at least bring some sense of comfort amidst all of this chaos.